There was a South Indian temple opposite my childhood home. All winter, folks gathered here in the morning after their Prabhat Pheri, a form of exercise, music and prayer combined. After singing for some more time, they distributed a prasad, sacred food eaten after being offered to the Gods. This temple offered Pongal, a savory lentil and rice dish, on small strips of banana leaves. It tasted divine and my mother claimed that only prasad could taste this good because in fact it was blessed by the gods. I can still taste this on my tongue and smell the banana leaf steaming under the hot Pongal.
I later learned that Pongal was a standard breakfast dish in many Southern Indian homes and that as with its north Indian counterpart (khichdi), there are as many versions of it as there are homes.
Here is a version that is pretty close to what my tongue remembers from my childhood.
A note about some of the harder to find ingredients in the tempering. The core ingredients are the ghee (or other oil), mustard seeds and pepper corns. The other ingredients can be omitted, but the flavor will not be the same.
1. 1 cup rice (any long grain rice will do, I used a combination of jasmine and basmati)
2. 1/4-1/2 cup hulled moong dal (skinned yellow mung bean lentils, the kind available in Indian and Chinese grocery stores).
3. 3 1/4 cup water (more or less depending on your desired consistency and whether you use a pressure cooker or not). You want approximately twice the amount of water as your rice and dal combined.
4. Salt to taste.
1. 2 tbsp ghee
2. 1 tsp brown mustard seeds
3. 1 tsp cumin seeds
3. 1 tsp. pepper corn
4. 1 tsp ginger (I did not have this, but do not omit)
5. large pinch asafoetida (hing)
6. 1-2 tbsp. cashew nuts ( I did not have this, but do not omit or substitute)
7. 1-3 dried red chillies
8. 10-15 fresh curry leaves (do not omit)
1. Dry roast the unwashed mung beans in a skillet until they turn color slightly and become fragrant. You can omit this step, but it imparts a nutty flavor to the beans and ensures that the rice and beans cook evenly.
2. Mix mung beans with the rice and wash in several changes of water until the water runs clear.
3. Place the rice and lentil mix in a pressure cooker and add water.
4. Season with salt (the water should taste like sea water) and pressure cook till the cooker whistles once. Adjust for your own cooker. If you don’t have one, cook in a large pot, until the rice and mung beans become completely soft, but still hold shape. The water should have all been absorbed.
5. Temper the Pongal as follows:
Heat the ghee in a small skillet. When hot add all listed ingredients, saving the hing and cashews for last. When the seeds sputter and release their fragrance, remove from heat and add to the Pongal.
Mix gently, adjust the salt and eat plain, with yogurt, an Indian chutney or sambar.